Sorting through pro and prebiotics

© Federicofoto |

© Federicofoto |

Are you confused by the terms probiotics and prebiotics? If so, you’re not alone.   In part 3 of my posts on our microbiota, the spotlight is on probiotics and prebiotics.

Probiotics is the introduction of certain  beneficial strains of bacteria through various foods or supplements and it’s a segment of the marketplace  which seems to be growing in leaps and bounds. Yogurt, cheese, milk, frozen desserts  and even juices are now available with added probiotics.

But do you really reap the maximum benefits when you consume these products?

Not always.

First there’s the question of the strain of bacteria used and its potential impact. Then there are the numbers of bacteria present in the food when it’s produced and whether they   survive in large numbers while the product is being stored on store shelves through to when it goes into your belly. When it comes to probiotics, Best before dates should be looked at carefully.

Another question is whether the bacteria make it through the gut surviving the digestive process.  Dairy products such as yogurt and kefir, as opposed to some supplements,  can be a superior way to deliver these bacteria  as they  may protect the bacteria from being killed off by stomach acids.

As  the probiotic selections expand, keep in mind that  food and supplement companies should be able to back up their claims with good solid research on their own products.  You might consider contacting the  company or checking their website for some backup research or information on whether the product delivers the goods.

On occasion, when I have requested the  research, I’ve been sent  studies on the benefits of the particular strain of bacteria but not those that show how the particular product performs when humans consume it. That’s the kind of evidence you want.  If the company hasn’t conducted the research, don’t waste your money.

As probiotic supplements fall under the auspices of  Health Canada’s  Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD), the manufacturers are self-regulating.  This self-regulation certainly has its critics (including me).

Who knows if you’re getting what you paid for. The government certainly isn’t keeping the companies honest.

According to Tod Cooperman, MD, President of the U.S.-based, an independent lab which tests the quality of  nutritional products and supplements, there may be quality or labelling problems in  about   one in four products. His lab found that one Canadian supplement had  only 13% of the amount claimed on the label as of the “time of manufacture.”

He states, “While a company may argue that the label is no promise as to what to expect at the time the product is purchased, neither we nor the U.S. FDA allow that type of weaseling, i.e., a product has to have the amount it lists.”

It’s definitely buyer beware when it comes to probiotic supplements.

Now to prebiotics.

These are specific carbohydrates, resistant to human digestion,  which  stimulate and promote the growth of these beneficial bacteria.  Simply put, they’re the fare of choice for the bacteria. So if you’re a hospitable host and looking to entice these microbes to make your gut their home, feed them what they like.

High fibre foods tend to be  chock full of  indigestible carbs such as fructo-oligosaccharides, gums, inulin and resistant starches  that bacteria ferment in order to thrive.

The first prebiotics many people are  exposed to are found in breast milk – just one of the reasons  breast is best. The prebiotics here are in the form of oligosaccharides. The benefits for the baby  include a reduced risk of various infections and allergies and auto-immune diseases later in life.

If you’re eating a variety of whole plant foods, as opposed to processed foods, you’ll likely consume plenty of prebiotics.  To up your prebiotic intake, season your foods generously with assorted members of the allium family – garlic, onions and leeks. Go for  fruits and vegetables like bananas, berries,  an assortment of dark greens, like chicory and spinach, along with  artichokes and asparagus.

Whole grains like barley, oatmeal and whole  wheat are also super sources.  Legumes  such as chickpeas and lentils  are not only sources of prebiotics but also blood cholesterol-lowering fibre.  Another perk of prebiotics, specifically the  indigestible carbohydrates known as oligosaccharides,  is their link to  an increased absorption of minerals like calcium and magnesium.

Beans, beans are good for the heart, the more you eat ….
There is a catch when you begin to increase these prebiotic options. As there’s fermentation going on when the bacteria feed on the prebiotics, there’s a potentially somewhat unwelcome consequence: gas.  To help manage symptoms, add these foods gradually and boost your fluid intake at the same time.

Do you look for probiotic products when you shop? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Food Trends

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “Sorting through pro and prebiotics”

  1. Kathy
    January 11, 2014 at 5:09 am #

    Rosie, I think in your third last paragraph you want “to up your PREBIOTIC intake”…somehow it saws probiotic, am I right? Or am I mistaken?


  1. Seasoned Roasted Chick Peas | Enlightened Eater - February 7, 2014

    […] When you consider their amazing nutritional perks, it’s something we need to change. They’re prebiotic (promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in our gut), have anti-inflammatory action, are packed with fibre, both the kind that promotes regularity, […]

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